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Caring for Those with Vision and Hearing Impairments

Gary Gilles is a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor in private practice for over 20 years. He is also an adjunct faculty member at the University ...Read More

It’s easy to take our familiar tasks in life for granted. Most people think nothing of answering the phone, taking medication, watching television or preparing a meal. These are simple tasks that we’ve done thousands of times.

But what if you couldn’t hear the phone ring or make sense of the sounds coming from your television? What if you couldn’t see well enough to read a medicine bottle or use knives safely to prepare a meal? How would these limitations affect your independence, your relationships and your overall perspective on life?

Probably a great deal, if you were honest.

Caring for a loved one with a chronic disease such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, MS, congestive heart failure, or others is difficult. But when you add visual and hearing limitations to the mix, it creates special challenges for everyone involved. Nearly 1 in 10 adults, age 70 or older, report problems with both seeing and hearing and many of these people have additional health concerns. But even when an older adult does not have a chronic disease, the presence of vision and hearing deficits almost invariably means that caregivers will be (and should be) involved in helping their loved one with life tasks. But even with help, an older adult’s lifestyle if likely to change.

Seeing the world through their eyes

A person with visual and auditory impairments has a unique experience of the world that is not easily understood; even by family members. For those who can see and hear, the world extends outward as far as your eyes and ears can reach. Events such as the approach of another person, an upcoming meal, the decision to go out, or a change in routine are all signaled by sights and sounds that allow us to prepare for them.

They become increasingly dependent upon those around them to make their world safe and understandable.

But for the older adult who has difficulty seeing and hearing, the world is much narrower. They must make sense of their world using the limited information available to them. The older adult often misses overt cues because of their limited sight and/or hearing. As a result, they may come to experience the world as an unpredictable, and possibly threatening, place. They become increasingly dependent upon those around them to make their world safe and understandable.

The challenge: maintaining good communication

Our sight and hearing are the two primary senses we use to communicate with each other. As vision and hearing decline, communication with your loved one invariably becomes more challenging. In the early stages of the sensory impairment, the older person usually tries to adapt to situations the best they can. They may guess at what people are saying in conversation because they can’t hear. Or they may pretend they can see the images in the movie everyone is watching and enjoying. But eventually, most stop trying. That is when an older adult is most likely to socially withdraw and experience feelings of helplessness that may include depression.

Unfortunately, many adult children leave it up to their parents to decide whether they will address their own hearing or vision problems. But these issues are not always obvious to our loved ones. The symptoms come on gradually and older adults make adjustments along the way. They may not realize how impaired they really are.

They may not realize how impaired they really are.

The good news is that there are definite ways to improve your loved one’s ability to communicate, help them stay socially engaged and give them a greater sense of purpose. It may take a little investigative work, patience and deliberate practice on your part, but the potential gains your loved one will experience are worth the effort.

Ways to communicate with your loved one

Any type of communication takes practice. But persistence is especially important when you are trying to overcome hearing limitations. These proven tips will help you get your message across better and show that you care.

  • Get your loved one’s attention before speaking. A gentle hand on their shoulder or arm will alert them to your intention to speak.
  • Directly face your loved one when you talk to them. By being able to see each other’s facial expressions, it will help both of you better understand each other. Use facial expressions, gestures and body language to help communicate your message. Make sure your face is in a lighted area so your loved one can see you clearly.
  • Speak louder without shouting. This takes practice for most people. Simply projecting your voice as if you were talking to a group of people around large dinner table is about the right volume.
  • Speak clearly and more slowly. Pronounce your words completely, sounding out all of the syllables. Be sure that you don’t talk down to your loved one in a demeaning or scolding manner. Remember, you are adjusting your communication style so your loved one can better understand what you are saying.
  • Turn off background noise. When attempting to have a conversation, turn off the TV or radio. If you are in a crowded area, try to find a less noisy place. In restaurants, avoid sitting near the kitchen or where music is playing.
  • Listen carefully to your loved one’s responses. This will tell you whether they understood you. Ask your loved one to repeat back what he or she heard. Repeat your message, if necessary, in a kind and gentle voice.
  • Be patient. It may take more than one attempt to get your message across. If so, try using different words or shortening your message.
  • Keep your sense of humor. Look for opportunities to laugh at missed communications. It will keep your relationship intact and help you through the difficult times.
Keep Reading By Author Gary Gilles, LCPC
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